Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The economic impact of driverless trucks

For all the hype about the driverless cars - how they'll change the way we travel, revolutionize how our cities are designed, render public transportation completely obsolete* - I think that driverless trucks will have a greater overall economic impact. While driverless cars continue to be tested, driverless trucks are already moving freight:
Self-driving trucks are here. Otto, a self-driving truck startup that Uber acquired this summer, shipped a truckload of Anheuser-Busch beer across Colorado. According to Otto’s blog post on the trip, “our professional driver was out of the driver’s seat for the entire 120-mile journey down I-25, monitoring the self-driving system from the sleeper berth in the back.”

But this doesn’t mean the nation’s truck drivers need to start working on their résumés. Technology like this may eventually displace human truck drivers, but the tech is several years away from causing mass unemployment.

The key reason is that Otto’s self-driving technology is initially limited to highways. When the truck reaches ordinary city streets, it hands control over to a human driver to handle tricky traffic situations. This means that even after a truck is outfitted with Otto’s self-driving technology, it will still need a human driver in the truck.
As the article explains, this is probably good for truck drivers in the short term - by allowing the truck to drive itself on the highway, truckers can rest, thereby spending more time on the road without running afoul of federal regulations limiting the number of hours truckers can be behind the wheel.

At some point, however, driverless trucks will be able to navigate through city streets as well, thereby making the truck driver redundant. And this is where the effects on the economy will be seen. On one hand, driverless trucks will make goods much cheaper as they dramatically reduce the costs of transportation. On the other hand, they will put millions of truck drivers out of work, further eroding the nation's blue collar job base and creating significant socioeconomic disruption to an entire segment of the labor force. What good are cheaper products if you're unemployed and can't buy them?

(* For the record, I do not think that driverless cars will completely eliminate the need for public transportation. They might replace low-ridership buses serving rural and suburban areas, but along at least some high-volume urban corridors there will still be the need for vehicles that carry larger numbers of people than regular cars. There is simply a geometric limit to the number of cars a city street can accommodate.)

#11 Houston 16, SMU 38

There have been some truly unexpected, disappointing and inexcusable losses in recent UH football history (see here, here, here and here), but the expectation was that such losses were a thing of a past as long as Tom Herman was head coach.

Alas, that's not the case.

I'm not going into my normal "good, bad and ugly" format for posts about UH games. Everything about last Saturday's game was ugly, from the two turnovers to Greg Ward Jr's seven sacks to the two missed field goals to the pathetic 62 yards rushing managed by the Cougar offense to the 406 total yards surrendered by the UH defense. There's no sugar-coating this: the #11-ranked team in the nation got manhandled by a team that was 2-4 coming into this game. As a result, the Cougars have fallen out of the top 25, found their way on to ESPN's ignominious Bottom Ten list, and any hope they had of defending their conference title has evaporated.

This is a team in crisis. They are unfocused and demoralized.

They are battered physically: they've played eight weeks without a bye, including two Thursday night games. Injuries are piling up, and this team doesn't have a lot of depth.

They are reeling psychologically: the incessant barrage of "Tom Herman is leaving Houston and going to [insert name of high-profile school here]" from local and national media alike has to be getting to the players, as well as the disappointment of not landing spot in the Big 12.

They are not being helped by some of the decisions their coaches are making. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite's insistence that the Coogs try to run the ball up the middle - even though UH's inexperienced, makeshift offensive line simply cannot block for those kinds of plays - borders on incompetence. The Cougars managed only 1.8 yards per rush against SMU, and they came away with no points from the SMU 4 yard line after running it up the middle thrice and then missing a field goal. 

Finally, and as much as it pains me to say it, they were probably overrated coming into the season. This team is clearly deficient on the offensive line and in the secondary. The receivers are slow. The kicking game is a disaster. They were amped up to pull off the win over Oklahoma, which was aided by the flukiest play in all of college sports. But it's been all downhill from there.

(Stupid Sports Illustrated jinx...)

Tom Herman has never faced this kind of adversity before, and how he deals with this current situation will say a lot about his coaching abilities (as well as his supposed desirability to blue-blood programs). Can he right the ship?

This team can't play for a conference championship or New Year's Six bowl anymore; they are headed to a third-tier bowl game in Fort Worth, Birmingham or the Bahamas. But they can play for pride, they can knock off a second top-five team when Louisville comes to town next month (unlikely as it seems right now), and they can end the season with 10 wins and a spot in the final top 25. That wasn't the goal when the season began, but it is something.

If Tom Herman and his staff can't right the ship - if the team continues to lose and staggers its way to a 7-5 regular season - then not only will this go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in UH football history, but Tom Herman's abilities as a head coach will be exposed.

Which will it be? We'll find out, starting with Central Florida on Saturday.

The British are coming to New Orleans

Unlike a previous visit to the Crescent City, this might be more beneficial to all parties involved:
British Airways will launch nonstop flights between London and New Orleans next spring, marking the city's first direct connection with Europe since 1982. Local officials joined tourism and business leaders Thursday morning (Oct. 20) at Louis Armstrong International Airport to disclose the long-coveted connection, which they call a "game-changer" for the region.

The airline will provide year-round service to London's Heathrow Airport starting March 27. The 10-hour flights will depart London on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 3:40 p.m. local time and arrive at 7:40 p.m. New Orleans time. Returning flights will leave New Orleans at 9:10 p.m. and arrive in London the next day at noon.

Passengers will travel on a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which holds 214 passengers: 154 in economy class, 25 in premium economy and 35 in business.
This will not be the only nonstop flight to Europe from New Orleans; German carrier Condor will begin seasonal flights from Louis Armstrong International to Frankfurt next May.
The new international flights come as New Orleans seeks to push its total annual visitor count over the pre-Hurricane Katrina peak of 10.1 million. Tourism officials consider international visitors, who generally book longer stays and spend more, a key demographic in fueling local tourism growth. The United Kingdom is the second-largest market for foreign visitors to New Orleans, behind Canada, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We're beginning to make strides to where the airlines can see we can fill the back of the plane without an issue," said Stephen Perry, chief executive officer of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Since first approaching British Airways, New Orleans-area tourism and business leaders looked outside the immediate region to strengthen their case for London-to-New Orleans flights, Perry said. Their "catchment basin" approach reached from Lake Charles to Destin, Fla., encompassing more than 5 million people, not only to find more potential passengers but also create more destinations for foreign visitors.
Can that "catchment basin" generate enough business and leisure travel to sustain nonstop flights to London (and, for that matter, Frankfurt)? Stay tuned; the region is far enough away from other major international hubs in the southeast - Dallas/Fort Worth, Bush Intercontinental, Atlanta and Miami - and New Orleans itself is such a major tourist draw, that it just might work. Besides, if Austin can have nonstop flights to London, why can't New Orleans?

British Airways was the last European carrier to service New Orleans, when its flights from Mexico City to London stopped there to refuel. That service ended in 1982. More importantly, this service marks a huge milestone in the region's ongoing recovery from Katrina.

One has to wonder: given New Orleans' French heritage, will nonstop flights to Paris one day become a reality, too?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

No Big 12 membership for UH

Consider me unsurprised.
The University of Houston's campaign to join the Big 12 Conference was crushed Monday by the league's presidents, who ruled out expansion without discussing the merits of any individual applicants, including the confident, fast-rising Cougars.

Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, and University of Oklahoma President David Boren, president of the league's board of directors, said league CEOs decided unanimously against expansion and agreed to remove the topic as an active agenda item.

They said individual candidates, including UH and Rice University among 11 finalists, were never discussed during meetings Sunday night and a six-hour session Monday.

"We all came to a unanimous decision that this was not the right time (for expansion)," Boren said. "All the information generated was not wasted effort. They (candidate schools) presented themselves in a very fine light, and we appreciate them."

Those compliments, however, came as cold comfort to schools such as UH that have invested tens of millions of dollars in facility upgrades and coaching salaries in the hopes of joining one of the "Power Five" conferences that hold the financial upper hand in the billion-dollar college sports industry.
The Big 12 never had any intention of expanding; this was all a charade meant to put pressure on television partners ESPN and Fox Sports for more money. It was a farce; as CBS's Dennis Dodd explains, a hurtful waste of time:
The real hurt has to be felt at Houston, Cincinnati and BYU. All three invested millions in presenting themselves as Power Five schools. In many ways, they are. For now and for a long time, they now remain relegated to conference football's discount store -- the Group of Five.

Their access to the College Football Playoff remains akin to getting the last crumb of an Oreo. Whatever emotions they're having right now -- jilted, misled, left at the altar -- are all valid. 

Yes, what a waste of time. Those 11 finalists schlepped their way to Dallas last month for their presentations. The entire process cost each school about $10,000 to $15,000. 

That's not a budget breaker by any means. But it was like Charlie Brown staring down that football. You just know, no matter what, Lucy is going to pull it out from under you.

"Gathering of information is never a waste of time," Boren said. 

Tell that to the folks you put through this. 
The Charlie Brown analogy is apt; the Big 12 has done this to Houston before. In that regard, nothing has changed for UH; they're still in the AAC and (as of now, at least) one of the stronger programs in the Group of Five. But Group of Five membership is not nearly as lucrative as Power Five membership, which is what the Coogs were banking on.

University administrators remain confident...
The Big 12's decision in no way changes the mission of the University of Houston that began long before there was talk of conference expansion," said Renu Khator, the university's chancellor who helped lead UH's campaign for Big 12 membership.

"We are confident that in this competitive collegiate athletics landscape an established program with a history of winning championships and a demonstrated commitment to talent and facilities in the nation's fourth largest city will find its rightful place. Our destiny belongs to us."
...but the fact remains that the level of investment that the school has put into its athletics program to make itself attractive to Power Five conferences might not be sustainable:
In an email from Khator to a UH professor two years ago, she acknowledged the challenge of spending on sports. If UH does not get into a major conference soon, "it will be difficult for us to sustain it," she said.

That's one of the reasons that UH officials worked aggressively behind the scenes for at least a year to get this major athletic conference opportunity, according to emails, travel records and other documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle through an open-records request.

The Big 12's decision not to expand now means that professors will discuss the future of the subsidy and how it affects teaching and learning at UH, faculty senate president Jonathan Snow said.

Professors are aware of the money, recruiting buzz and boost to campus culture brought by a successful, nationally recognized athletics program, he said, but many feel that the university has been "left at the altar" when the big push didn't pay off.
It's hard to say where the University of Houston goes from here; it could be years before the subject of conference realignment comes up again. Although the football program currently has momentum - season ticket sales are up and television ratings are decent - it remains to be seen if that momentum can be sustained, or if other sports (namely, men's basketball) can begin to attain a level of success, that will make the overall program attractive to other Power Five conferences when the time does come for realignment. Success in college sports requires money, and UH just doesn't have a lot of it.

Which is why they were trying to get into the Big 12 to begin with it, even if their expansion process was an embarrassing sham.

HSPVA has a new name

My old high school is getting a new home in downtown Houston. It's also getting a new name:
After days of tension and hours of passionate debate, the Houston school board voted 7-2 Thursday to accept a $7.5 million gift for the city's renowned arts high school and to rename the campus after the donors.

The vote marked the first time the Houston Independent School District sold naming rights for a campus - a rarity in the public elementary and secondary school arena.

The Houston-based Kinder Foundation, run by local billionaire couple Rich and Nancy Kinder, offered the donation in exchange for calling the campus the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The money will go toward rebuilding the school downtown - funding theater lighting and seats, a sound system, a specialized dance floor and more.
If my Facebook feed is any indication, a lot of my high school classmates are livid about this decision. They believe that the prestigious fine arts school has been "sold out" by HISD, that the Kinders have never previously been involved with the school and therefore are not "HSPVA family" and are thus unworthy, that the $7.5 million the Kinders are donating in order to get the school renamed after them is a pittance (about 8% of the school's $90.2 million price tag), that the KinderMorgan pipeline company from which the family gets its wealth is evil and corrupt, that it's not fair for a school like HSPVA to receive such a donation when so many other HISD schools are struggling with inadequate resources, that students, parents and alumni had no input in this decision, etc.

This anger is understandable, especially when viewed as a dynamic between the (generally liberal) alumni of an arts school versus the (generally conservative) business elite. And, to be sure, my schoolmates aren't united in this reaction; some are welcoming the gift as necessary to provide future students with a state-of-the art campus, while others are noting that Houston's arts community can't pick and choose where its support comes from. As one of my classmates wrote, "If we forced every donor to the arts to pass a purity test, we would never see another dime."

I am among those HSPVA alums who just can't get too worked up over this. This isn't to say I'm thrilled at the fact that my high school now has a family's name on it, but I recognize that donations such as these were necessary if the downtown facility was to be completed, and I also know that all of the fine arts facilities downtown have a philanthropist's name attached to them.

Furthermore, it really doesn't affect me personally. I'm not going to stop calling it "HSPVA," or start saying "Kinder" when people ask me where I went to high school. I doubt many fellow alumni will do that, either. 

Besides, I've seen this before. When I was an architecture student at the University of Houston, local developer Gerald Hines made a large donation to the College of Architecture and they renamed the school after him. Many of my classmates and studiomates were outraged: they also perceived the transaction as a "sellout," and they didn't like the fact that the school was being named after a developer rather than an actual architect. (Never mind the fact that developers are the ones who pay architect's bills...) However, all I could think was, "cool, money for more scholarships and better professors."

Finally, a word about HISD board member Jolanda Jones, who was one of two trustees to vote against the name change and who earlier this year spearheaded an effort to spend $1.2 million of the cash-strapped school district's money to rename several schools that previously bore names of figures associated with the Confederacy:
"I find it offensive that people say if you don't vote for this, that you don't care about the kids. Actually I care about all the kids in HISD," Jones said.
Translation: I'd rather keep the entire district impoverished than accept a donation that's just going to benefit those artsy kids at our district's flagship high school. Never mind the fact that, unlike my renaming scheme, this one is actually being paid for by a private entity, rather than by taxpayers.
"It seems like HISD is like a pimp, and the schools are what they sell," Jones added. "That was the nicest way I could think to say it."
"Pimp?" You stay ghetto, Jolanda. I've never been impressed with you. 

Kuff, Guidry News and the Houston Press have more.

#13 Houston 38, Tulsa 31

It wasn't pretty, but thanks to a couple of key defensive plays late in the game, it was a win.

The Good: Tulsa had mounted a fourth quarter rally, coming back from a two-touchdown deficit to tie the game. They had the ball, and the UH defense reeling, when Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans had the ball stripped from his hands by UH safety Garrett Davis. Linebacker Emeke Egbule grabbed the lose ball and ran 24 yards into the endzone for a scoop-and-score to put the Coogs ahead with 1:21 remaining. Undeterred, the Golden Hurricane got the ball back and marched right down the field. With two seconds left and from Houston’s two yard line, Tulsa devised a scoring play using their bruising defensive end, Jesse Brubaker. However, Brubaker ran his route just short of the goal line and was immediately met by safeties Khalil Williams and Austin Robinson, who stopped Brubaker just outside of the endzone. Replay confirmed that neither Brubaker nor the ball broke the plane of the goal line. Game over.

The Bad: These game-saving plays aside, the defense struggled against Tulsa, allowing the golden Hurricane to gain 459 total yards - the most the Cougars have given up in a single game all year. The Cougar defense also struggled to get off the field; they allowed Tulsa to convert 14 of 20 third downs. This defensive performance, as well as an offense that sputtered at times and fumbled twice, is what allowed Tulsa to come back from a ten-point deficit to tie the game at halftime and a fourteen-point deficit to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.

The Ugly: Special teams continues to struggle. Kicker Ty Cummings was flagged for a kickoff that went out of bounds, and Punter Dane Roy shanked two punts out of bounds - one for 30 yards and another for only 10 yards. Playcalling was dreadful at times; UH offensive coordinator Major Applewhite continues to insist on calling runs up the middle even though it’s obvious that Houston’s o-line cannot run block in that situation. Finally, the Cougars were flagged for 10 penalties for 104 yards.

What It Means: This was not the Coogs’ best game of the season by any means, and as of right now they do not look like the team that beat Oklahoma to begin the season. Injuries have taken a toll, for sure, and the Coogs might have been still trying to shake off the hangover from the previous week’s loss against Navy, but right now one really gets the sense that this team is taking a step backwards.

Regardless, a win is a win, and he Coogs, who moved up to #11 in this week’s AP Poll, are now officially bowl eligible.

Next up for Houston is a trip to Dallas to face the SMU Mustangs.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This election

On one hand, I'm not looking forward to four more weeks of this putrid shitshow. I wish this election were over today.

On the other hand, it's kind of interesting to watch one of this nation's two major political parties tear itself apart. (Nominations have consequences!)

It's a great time to be a political scientist, I guess. For the rest of us, this just sucks.

#6 Houston 40, Navy 46

The sixth-ranked Cougars had no answer for Navy’s triple-option and Greg Ward Jr. committed three turnovers in a 46-40 loss to the Midshipmen at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. 
The Midshipmen rolled to 306 rushing yards against the nation’s top-ranked run defense that played without another key player for the second week in a row due to disciplinary measures. 
Linebacker Steven Taylor was suspended for the game for what the school said was a violation of team policy. 
Tied 20-20 at halftime, Navy broke the game open by scoring touchdowns off turnovers on the Cougars’ first two possessions of the second half. 
Ward was sacked and fumbled on the Cougars’ first possession after halftime. Navy quarterback Will Worth faked the toss and hit a wide-open Darryl Bonner for a 17-yard touchdown. 
On the Cougars’ next series, Josiah Powell intercepted Ward for the second time in the game and went 34 yards for the touchdown and 34-20 lead.
The Bad: Greg Ward Jr did not have a good day with his three turnovers - he was also sacked twice - but he nevertheless managed to pass for 359 yards and two touchdowns and rush for another 94 yards and a touchdown. The problem was that most of those rushing yards were broken play scrambles; the Cougar run offense struggled without starting running back Duke Catalon, who was out with an injury, and only managed 125 yards on the afternoon. That being said, a bright spot was walk-on Dillon Birden, who rushed for 51 yards and a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

The Ugly: As bad as the offense looked, they still scored 40 points, which would normally be enough to win a football game. The real problem was the defense, which simply could not stop the Midshipmen. The Cougar rushing defense had been one of the best in the nation coming into Saturday's game, but against Navy they were utterly helpless. They were especially bad containing the outside runs and pitches, and their tackling was atrocious. The defense allowed Navy to dominate the game clock and could not come up with any turnovers of their own. It's hard to win when you're -3 in turnovers, especially on the road.

Navy QB Will Worth, for his part, racked up 115 rushing yards on 32 carries; he only completed three of five passes, but two of those were for touchdowns.

The Cougars clearly missed several players on defense, including cornerback Brandon Wilson, who has been injured since the Cincinnati game, as well as three starting linebackers: Tyus Bowser was out with a skull fracture suffered as a result of a fight with Matthew Adams, who was also held out of the game as a disciplinary measure; as for Steven Taylor, well, I hope whatever he did to get suspended from this game was worth it.

The Uglier: As if it couldn't get any worse, Houston's special teams were putrid. They gave up a 85-yard kickoff return that led to Navy's first touchdown, missed an extra point and muffed a punt for a safety late in the fourth quarter, which sealed the loss.

The Ugliest: This team was clearly not prepared to play on Saturday; they were making poor decisions, forgetting fundamentals (especially tackling), and simply looked a step slow. That's on the coaching staff. Tom Herman, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and the rest of the staff had almost a week and a half to prepare for this game. They did a poor job.

Given Saturday's lack of focus, and the disciplinary problems that have suddenly become an issue, one had to wonder if the insufferable "where is Tom Herman going next season" media circus is finally getting to the players, and if he is losing the team.

What It Means: The Cougars fell to #12 in the Coaches poll and #13 in the AP poll as a result of this loss, and whatever slim shot they had to make the College fotball Playoff has now evaporated. But even worse is that, by virtue of this loss, the Cougars could still win out and not play for the American Conference Championship and go to a New Year's Six Bowl. Since this was a in-division loss, the Cougars now need Navy to lose twice in conference in order to be guaranteed the AAC West title.

In other words, Houston could end the regular season with a 11-1 record, ranked in the top ten, and end up playing Middle Tennessee in the Boca Raton Bowl on a Tuesday night.

Next up for the Cougars is a game against Tulsa this Saturday evening at TDECU Stadium. Nothing this team can do now except brush themselves off, get back up and get back to winning.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Thanks a lot, Google.

Sometime last week, Google made an update to their Blogger software that caused the links lists (aka, my "blogroll") on this site to disappear.

There was some discussion on Google tech forums that Google would restore this particular functionality, but that has not happened. I guess this means that at some point I am going to have to recreate a blogroll from scratch.

Yes, I know that Blogger is free, yadda yadda yadda... But this is a bit of a pain in the ass.

EDIT 10/10: The blogrolls have reappeared. Never mind.

Thanks for fixing this, Google.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

#6 Houston 42, Connecticut 14

The Cougars avenged their only loss of the 2015 season before an impressive Thursday night crowd of 40,873 at TDECU Stadium by dismantling the Connecticut Huskies, 42-14.

The Good: Greg Ward Jr completed 32 of 38 passes for a career-high 389 passing yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for an additional 65 yards and two touchdowns. One of Ward Jr's touchdown passes was a highlight-reel one-handed catch in the corner of the endzone by Linell Bonner. The Cougar defense held UConn to 62 rushing yards and has given up only 56 points through five games (the fewest points given up by the program since 1989).

The Bad: The Huskies racked up 273 passing yards and burned the Cougar secondary for a 62-yard touchdown pass late in the first half; had UConn's quarterback been a bit more accurate there might have been more scores of that type.

The Ugly: UConn linebacker Junior Joseph showed himself to be a punk-ass loser by being flagged for a personal foul penalty by getting into Greg Ward Jr's face AFTER he had thrown a touchdown pass. (!) Two UH linebackers missed this game after getting into what seems to be a nasty fight at a team event earlier this week.

What it means: revenge factor aside, the Cougars remain undefeated with this conference win. The fact that the Coogs sold over 40 thousand tickets for this Thursday night game indicates that the city has gotten on board the Cougar bandwagon.

Next up for Houston is a trip to Annapolis, Maryland to take on Navy. It won't be a walkover but Navy is not the same team they were last year.